Dr. Sima Goel was a 13-year-old girl living in Iran when the Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that all women must wear the hijab, whether they were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Bah’ai. Terrified, angry, and determined, Sima took the streets to demonstrate for freedom under the Shah’s rule. Then the Shah fled the country and the new government imposed even more oppressive laws. Blacklisted by her school, unable to continue her studies, and forced into hiding, Sima decided to escape Iran for a country where she could be free.
Today, Sima lives in Montreal and is a chiropractor, wife, mother of two grown sons, and a JWRP sister. She is also the recent author of the memoir, Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran. We spoke to Sima about her powerful return to the Middle East with MOMentum as well as the many challenges she overcame to write her memoir.
What inspired you to experience MOMentum?
Growing up as a Jew in Iran, I was proud of my heritage and people, but I needed to focus on surviving under the hostile Islamic regime. Once I arrived in Canada at the age of 18, I was consumed with learning two new languages and finding a way to support myself. Later, I was absorbed with school, my career, and my family. I was grateful that the Jewish community embraced me, but I saw myself as a hybrid – an Iranian-Canadian Jew, married to the son of an Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor. I most strongly identified with people who had fled, survived, and flourished despite all odds.
Then I celebrated my Canadian nephew’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem and saw what it meant to be a Jew living openly in a Jewish world. When my sister-in-law told me about MOMentum, I jumped at the opportunity to return to Israel. Little did I know that one day, I would relate to my travel companions as sisters.
How did MOMentum impact you?
Experiencing Israel alongside Jewish women from all walks of life and all parts of the world, I transformed from a person who saw herself on the outside of the Jewish community to a person intimately and completely engulfed within the Jewish people. Before MOMentum, I was a woman with a harsh story in her past. Afterwards, I was a woman who belonged.
While in Israel, I was amazed to see that Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Christian, gay, and transgender people were all accepted for who they were and that no one was afraid. In Israel, everyone is a child of G-d. The streets are filled with many languages, diversity is celebrated and the people are free.
On Saturday night, while celebrating Havdalah services in Jerusalem in the company of Israeli soldiers, I recognized the Muslim call to prayer. I had heard the same call every day in Iran. But in Jerusalem, I didn’t feel anxious or afraid. Instead, I felt secure in my identity. I took comfort in the company of my friends, and I felt proud that in the small city of Jerusalem, all are welcome to pray. I realized that when Jews are empowered, all are equal and all are safe.
What inspired you to write about your escape from Iran?
While crossing the desert in Iran, I promised myself that I’d write my story if I survived. But I came to Canada not knowing English, so I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. Then in 2004, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Canada (JIAS) interviewed me for a documentary. A few years later, when I shared my story at a Women’s Philanthropy event at the Jewish Federation in Montreal, everyone in the audience was in tears and urged me to document my life. I decided that it was time to share my story with more people. I want to help people understand that we can’t turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism. We need to come together as a community, confront our history, and hold each other accountable. We have to teach the next generation what happened to us and leave the world a better place.
What advice would you give to other women who are interested in sharing their personal stories?
Go for it. Get past the negative thoughts that stop you in your tracks — the “I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, and why me, why now?” During our lives, we witness history and come away with unique perspectives. Take your story in your own hands. Don’t waste your time worrying about the things that you can’t control. The experience of writing my memoir took me thousands upon thousands of hours and it was worth it. I’ve told the story of what I experienced and I’ve shed light on the Jewish people who are still suffering in Iran today.
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